After wallowing in the shadows of Los Angeles for his excellent directorial debut Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy steps into the light (mostly) for his second film, Roman J. Israel, Esq. Truth be told, he seems to have been somewhat blinded by it.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a tale of disillusionment in the face of a cynical world, one that rings much truer to life than the slick satire of Nightcrawler, and LA is the perfect setting for it. Gilroy and DoP Robert Elswit have a knack for framing the city; it’s never clear if the shine on everything is polish or slime. But Gilroy’s screenplay can’t resist a flare for the melodramatic. The third act can’t decide whether it wants to be a thriller; the slow transformation of key players is undermined by the idea that it’s meant to take place over a matter of mere weeks.
What keeps the film together is Denzel Washington’s subtle, yet powerful, performance as the eponymous lead: his Oscar nomination is well-deserved. Roman J. Israel, Esq. explains early on that his honorific puts him “above a gentleman and below a knight”, and there is something appealingly quixotic about him – though an encounter with some young activists reveals him to be less woke than he might like to think. Washington even succeeds in turning a series of clichéd, semi-autistic quirks into a three-dimensional character. It’s just a shame that fine supporting players like Colin Farrell and Carmen Ejogo are given little to do other than float in his orbit.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. is very much a “difficult second album” for director Dan Gilroy, but not for lack of ambition. Even though its shaggy-dog story of idealism gone sour threatens to come apart in places, Denzel Washington’s career-best performance is never less than compelling.
CAST: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Tony Plana
DIRECTOR: Dan Gilroy
WRITER: Dan Gilroy
SYNOPSIS: Roman J. Israel, Esq., a driven, idealistic defense attorney, finds himself in a tumultuous series of events that lead to a crisis and the necessity for extreme action.